Guest commentary: An alternative view on faculty unions

Guest commentary: An alternative view on faculty unions

By James Barrett and Kathryn Oberdeck

For the past two years, a small group of anti-union activists on campus has claimed that a democratic process of collective bargaining would be the end of the University of Illinois as we know it. Professors Joyce Tolliver and Nick Burbules think they have found proof of this impending doom in the recent strike authorization vote at the University of Illinois at Chicago (guest commentary, News-Gazette print edition, Dec. 11, 2013; online edition Dec. 12). The fact that UIC faculty there feel the need for such action is indeed unfortunate. Given this, it is reasonable to ask why, and to what end, the vote was taken. It is particularly important for those of us at UIUC, where we have been discussing collective bargaining, to consider the whole context and meaning of such a vote.

First, the vote is not a vote to strike. It authorizes such action in the event that "every other avenue of influence has been exhausted." The bargaining team will continue to negotiate, with the help of a federal mediator. As the UIC union's own publicity emphasizes, a strike would only be undertaken as a last resort, after a membership meeting and a vote of the Representative Assembly.

Why a conflict looms at all is a part of the story missing from the earlier guest commentary. The UIC negotiations have now gone on for 17 months and it is reasonable to ask whether this represents good-faith bargaining on the university's part. This pattern has been repeated over and over in campus labor negotiations over the past several years. Its advent coincided with the university's increasing reliance on outside law firms specializing in aggressive anti-union tactics. Strikes on the Urbana campus were once rare, but this new more aggressive stance has already resulted in actions by graduate employees and service workers and has brought us close to conflicts in other cases. Unions are faced with the alternatives of giving up entirely or taking an authorization vote. It might be tempting to blame our UIC colleagues and other unionized employees, and that seems to be the object in the anti-union strategy. The long, drawn-out negotiations are intended to weaken existing unions and to discourage those considering their right to organize.

Having demonstrated strong majority support twice over every possible legal obstacle, the UIC union now finds the administration unwilling to come to a compromise. Everyone hopes that mediators will be able to facilitate an agreement, but that will require concessions from the university, not only the union. (A complete time line for the Chicago negotiations is available at

Professors Tolliver and Burbules seem most interested in using the unlikely prospect of a strike at UIC to discredit the union effort here in Urbana, and they hold up the UIUC senate as an alternative to unionization. It is not. The senate cannot lobby in Springfield at a moment when a faculty voice is badly needed there, nor can it negotiate salaries and benefits.

Still, as the authors know, members of the Campus Faculty Association have not only supported but have also been active in the senate and other shared-governance bodies. (Several recent senate chairs came directly from the CFA to senate leadership.) Despite claims to the contrary, senates and unions have worked together successfully on campuses across the country. CFA will continue to participate in shared governance. But many of our colleagues seem not to share the authors' belief that the senate can solve all of our problems. Attendance at senate meetings is low and a recent survey suggests misgivings about the effectiveness of that body. One UIC union proposal that the authors did not cite is the request that the university's own statutes be incorporated into a new contract. In this and other ways, a democratically run union would strengthen shared governance.

Recent initiatives cited by the authors regarding faculty salary, the tenuous status of non-tenure track and women colleagues, and other serious problems facing our campus came in the wake of union activity. The senate task force established to make recommendations on a range of such problems came only after more than a year of union activity and was explicitly proposed by Professor Burbules as an alternative to unionization. To the extent that union activity stimulated solutions to such problems, this is an argument for, not against, unionization.

With our pensions in great jeopardy, salaries remaining below most of our peers, and a corporate model sinking deep roots in the campus culture, it is time for faculty to raise their voice and strengthen their influence through unionization.

James Barrett and Kathryn Oberdeck are faculty at the University of Illinois and members of the executive committee of the Campus Faculty Association.